School spending gets big push

House, Murkowski support boost in financial funds for K-12, university

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

JUNEAU Gov. Frank Murkowski is willing to go along with an increase of more than $80 million in school funding next year to prevent districts from having to lay off teachers.

''When we put our budget together, we didn't recognize or realize how much of a budget crisis the school districts were going to be in,'' Murkowski's spokesperson, John Manly, said Tuesday. ''That's obviously become very apparent since then, and he would support that kind of an increase.''

Schools around the state have been hit hard this year by rising costs, including additional required contributions to employee retirement systems. Many districts say they'll have to lay off teachers without extra help from the state.

With lawmakers in both the House and Senate having pledged support for between $82 million and $84.5 million more for kindergarten through 12th grade schools, some legislators said Tuesday that districts can assume they will get that much new money.

''The cavalry's on the way,'' said House Rules Chair Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage.

But there's disagreement in the Legis-lature over the bills that would supply the extra dollars, and Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, was not as reassuring.

''This vessel's still far out at sea, with no port in sight,'' Stevens said. ''I wouldn't guarantee anything at this point.''

The House on Monday approved bipartisan legislation to provide $84.5 million more than was in the governor's budget for K-12 education, increasing the per-student base allocation from $4,010 to $4,588. The bill also provided $15.8 million more than the current year's spending for the University of Alaska.

The increase in K-12 funding would mean about $5.9 million in state money for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and would allow for an additional $1.35 million from the borough, for a total increase of about $7.3 million, according to the district's chief financial officer, Melody Douglas.

That's right in line with what the district has been seeking, she said.

"Absolutely. ... When I did the calculations, to be held even in 2004, we would need $4,570 (per student)," Douglas said. "We're in the ballpark here."

The Senate last week took up a bill that would have provided $82 million more for K-12 education and $5.8 million more for the university.

But the Republican majority in the Senate failed to gain support from Senate Democrats to tap the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve to pay for the increase.

It takes a three-quarters vote to take money from the budget re-serve.

Providing that vote now would mean Democrats, who are in the minority, give up leverage they normally use at the end of the legislative session to make changes in the entire state budget.

In the House, the Democrats did provide the votes to tap the reserve fund, but Senate Republicans are not happy with the deal the House made to get those votes.

In addition to $2.5 million more for schools, the House deal included almost $10 million in capital projects, much of them in Demo-crats' districts.

The projects range from $3.4 million for erosion control in Shishmaref to $3,500 for search and rescue equipment in Tenakee.

The House deal also includes a guarantee of full funding for the Power Cost Equalization program, which helps defray high power costs in rural Alaska.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he dislikes linking the capital projects to school spending.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said the projects included in the bill are needs that have been ignored by Republican budget-writers in the past.

And, he said, Republicans can insert projects for their districts into overall budget bills that will pass later in the session.

But Stevens said there's no money this year for special projects in legislators' districts.

Manly would not say what the governor's position was on the capital projects portion of the House plan.

Peninsula Clarion reporter Jenni Dillon contributed to this report.

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